As a professional doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, I’m often asked if acupuncture and Chinese medicine can improve athletic performance. As someone who participates in endurance events like marathons and triathlons, I have a personal understanding of the need to properly care for my body and health during the many months of hard training required for these intense pursuits. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine can indeed help to improve athletic performance by promoting a healthy immune system, maintaining joint, muscle, and tendon health, and boosting energy and endurance in order to be successful in athletic pursuits.
From the Chinese medicine viewpoint, the most important organ systems for athletes are the Liver, Kidneys, Lungs, and Spleen. Let me explain why.
“The Liver Stores Blood and Governs the Tendons/Ligaments”
From the Chinese medicine perspective, the Liver stores the blood during periods of rest, and then releases it to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in times of activity (i.e. training or racing). Athletic performance therefore relies on abundant blood. If Liver blood becomes deficient it cannot properly nourish these tissues, and the result is tightness, inflexibility, and increased propensity to muscle, tendon, and ligament injuries. Furthermore, when this lubricating and moistening effect of the blood is weak, it results in a build-up of heat in the meridian system, which we all know as inflammation and pain.
“The Kidneys dominate the bones and are in charge of water metabolism”
The Kidneys are the root of Yin and Yang in the body. The fluids that lubricate joint spaces and nourish our body tissues are derived from the body’s Yin fluids (such as blood), and the source of the Yin fluids is the Kidney. If Kidney Yin is deficient, the quality of the blood will be weak. The result is low-quality blood to nourish tendons, ligaments, and muscles. In addition, if the Kidney energy is weak, bone strength can be compromised, which of course is detrimental for those athletes that put a lot of demands on their bones from running. Classical representative signs of Kidney Yin deficiency include soreness and weakness of the lower back and knees, tendency to feel hot, night sweats, and dry mouth and throat, or poor ability of the body to repair and maintain itself.
“The Lungs Govern Qi, control respiration, and control the skin”
Qi can be roughly translated as the vital energy of the body. The Lungs role of “governing qi” essentially means that the qi of the entire body relies on optimal functioning of the lung via respiration. This function greatly influences the functional activities of the entire body. Abundant Lung energy manifests as strong physical vitality. There is a sense of softness and fullness in the chest, strong lungs and a clear powerful voice. Immunity is strong, so recovery from illness and training is quick and effective. By extension, physically weak Lung energy will manifest as low vitality and a poor immune system: not at all desirable for an athlete.
“The Spleen is in charge of the production of Qi and Blood, and dominates the muscles”
Although it is primarily the Lung which governs bodily qi, the Spleen is the source of body’s qi and blood. These vital substances are both considered to be the result of the transformation and transportation of food essence by the Spleen (and Stomach). The absorbing and transporting function of the Spleen/Stomach is directly reflected in the development of a person’s flesh and muscles. Strong and well developed arms and legs are therefore considered to be an important indicator of good Spleen function, and by extension, optimizing Spleen function will enhance muscular development of the athlete.
Proper support of the Liver, Kidneys, Lungs, and Spleen is required not only for treating and preventing tendinomuscular injuries in athletes, but also as a means of enhancing athletic performance. In my practice I rely on the use of herbal medicine and acupuncture to achieve these goals. Acupuncture is extremely effective in its ability to move the qi and blood. What this means is it clears away any stagnation in the tissues which can be producing pain. A simple example of this “stagnation” would be the lactic acid that accumulates in the tissues following heavy activity. Another benefit of this increased circulation of qi and blood is that it brings fresh blood (and nutrition) into the tissues and therefore speeds recovery. Following last year’s Tour de France, it was revealed that eventual winner Vincenzo Nibali and all the other members of Team Astana were receiving acupuncture twice per day (before and after the Stage) http://blogs.wsj.com/dailyfix/2014/07/27/nibalis-secret-to-a-tour-de-france-win-acupuncture/. Professional cyclists are not the only pros receiving acupuncture, as it is now common knowledge that players in the NFL, CFL, MLB, NBA, and pro soccer in Europe and North America all have acupuncture treatments.
In terms of herbal medicine, I frequently rely on herbs that nourish blood and Yin, as well as those that strengthen qi, nourish the muscles and tendons, and enhance immune function. Examples include:
- Rehmannia root (sheng di huang) which clears heat and cools the blood (think: inflammation), as well as nourishes Yin and generates fluids – a nice benefit for those that deplete their fluids through the act of sweating.
- Chinese Angelica root (dang gui / dong quai) which tonifies/nourishes the blood, and promotes blood circulation to reduce pain and swelling.
- Lycii Fructus (gou qi zi – Goji berries) which enrich the Yin of the Lungs and Kidneys, nourish the blood and Liver.
- Cordyceps (dong chong xia cao) which strengthens the Kidneys and Lungs, and benefits athletes by increasing oxygen uptake into red blood cells by the lungs, thereby improving endurance and recovery.
- Red Reishi (ling zhi) which has been prized in Chinese medicine for thousands of years for its ability to reverse the effects of stress (including physical stress) and promote a healthy immune system.
- Achyranthes root (niu xi) which benefits the Liver and Kidneys, invigorates the blood, and strengthens the tendons, ligaments, and bones –especially of the legs.
- Panax Ginseng (ren shen) which is considered the preeminent herb for strengthening the qi; it strengthens the Lungs and Spleen, and generates body fluids.
As you can see, the treatment options available with traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture can be extremely effective for repairing or protecting against sports injuries, as well as enhancing athletic performance in athletes. But it’s not only endurance and other high-level athletes that can benefit, and I would employ a similar treatment strategy for anyone who wants to stay healthy while participating in any other regular physical activity such as weight training, tennis, dancing, martial arts, Pilates, yoga, or hiking.